A big upset in Big D! The Dallas Cowboys (7-5) snapped the New Orleans Saints’ (10-2) 10-game winning streak with a low-scoring shocker, 13-10, at AT&T Stadium to kick off Week 13. Here’s what we learned:
1. To stop the MVP favorite Drew Brees and his record-setting Saints offense in 2018, it had to take a Herculean effort on defense, one the Ravens, Vikings, Rams and Eagles had failed to muster in their earlier clashes with New Orleans. On Thursday night, DeMarcus Lawrence, Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch and the Cowboys provided such an effort. Dallas held the Saints to a season-low 10 points and 176 total yards in a surprising slugfest at Jerryworld. The Cowboys’ pass rush frustrated Brees, who was averaging 285 yards per game and a 76 completion percentage, all night long. The future Hall of Famer finished with just 111 passing yards and uncharacteristically missed on a number of throws, including his final one. Down three points just ahead of the two-minute warning, an off-balance Brees underthrew Alvin Kamara on an underneath toss. Cowboys cornerback Jourdan Lewisscooped the ball up before it landed on the turf, securing the victory with one of the most ill-advised interceptions of Brees’ career. The veteran QB said after the game he was trying to throw it away. The ball, that is, not the game. The Cowboys proved in the victory that their defense could not only hang with, but overwhelm one of the most explosive offenses in the league.
As owner Jerry Jones put it, “This game, when you win a game like this — and it took all we had — but when you win a game like this, it changes you. You know you can do it. This is a young, impressionable bunch. They know now they can go out there and they can play our game and play it in a way to beat an offensive machine. I’m just so proud for them because they’re not going to be the same kids that looked in the mirror this morning.”
2. The Cowboys utilized a formula familiar to schoolyards nationwide to halt the marching Saints: Keep away. It worked like gangbusters in the first half. With a steady diet of Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas unleashed three scoring drives of 5:36, 4:10 and 9:09 in the first two quarters to establish a 13-point lead at halftime. Elliott didn’t have his best evening (23 carries, 76 yards) against New Orleans’ league-best run defense, but his yeoman’s work opened up the offense for Dak Prescott (248 yards, 86 comp. pct.), who was excellent before the final quarter. Prescott had the upper hand when attacking Saints cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Eli Apple with Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup, respectively. Imagine that. Gallup’s 40-yard catch on Apple on Dallas’ first scoring drive set the tone for the game. Cooper caught all eight of his targets and forced the game-winning pass interference penalty against Lattimore. On a night when the run game was secondary, Dallas looked comfortable leaning on the pass. Quite a sea change from the first weeks of the season.
3. What more can be said about the excellent linebacker duo in the middle of Dallas’ defense? Both considered risks for different reasons coming out of college, Vander Esch and Smith have developed into sideline-to-sideline black holes, assuredly standing up and swallowing tentative ball-carriers on drive after drive. Vander Esch (10 total tackles) and Smith (nine) teamed up on a crucial goal-line stand in the second quarter to eliminate a Saints scoring chance and proved critical to keeping New Orleans’ ground game, well, grounded (65 yards). I’d be remiss if I didn’t give credit to the Cowboys’ secondary, too, namely Byron Jones, Chidobe Awuzie and Anthony Brown, who save for a few drive-extending penalties, eliminated the Saints’ downfield threat. Michael Thomas recorded just five receptions for 40 yards, and no other Saints receiver tallied more than one reception. The boss was certainly impressed. “The defense played beyond my expectations,” Jones gushed after the game. “They played like a championship defense.”
4. It just wasn’t the Saints’ night. Coach Sean Payton used both of his challenges within the first 20 minutes, losing one and then losing the ability to challenge the remainder of the game. That would have come in handy on a fourth-quarter third-down conversion. New Orleans was also without Terron Armstead for the third straight game and replaced him with Jermon Bushrod, who was victimized by Lawrence all evening. The entire Saints offensive line struggled to contain Dallas’ pass rush, which hurried Brees constantly, forcing him to take fewer shots downfield.
One critical call also didn’t go New Orleans’ way. On a fourth-quarter third down attempt, Kamara got walloped by Smith in an obvious helmet-to-helmet hit. The play, if penalized correctly in accordance with the guidelines outlined in the offseason, would have given the Saints a first down in field-goal range down three points. Instead, no flag was thrown and the Cowboys swung field position and the game with an ensuing 14-play drive.
Payton mused of the non-call, “I was involved in that process of the rule, you know? Listen, those are hard to call as well. And really, it’s tough, guys are moving around fast.”
5. One point of pride for the Saints: They sacked Prescott seven times and forced two fumbles to thwart scoring drives. It’s the second consecutive week New Orleans has recorded at least six sacks. Cameron Jordanrecorded two QB takedowns for the second straight week, while third-year defensive tackle David Onyemata abused Joe Looney and Xavier Su’a-Filo inside to record his first three sacks of the season.
6. With the loss, New Orleans lost control of its destiny in the race for home-field advantage in the NFC. The Saints have fallen one half-game behind the Rams (10-1) atop the conference, and L.A. has just one team with a winning record remaining on its schedule. If the Rams win out, then the NFC goes through the Coliseum.
The Cowboys’ victory gives them a half-game lead over the injury-riddled Redskins and a 1.5-game lead on the Eagles in the NFC East, heading into a 10-day mini-vacation. Dallas is still more than a game behind Chicago for the No. 3 seed. Next up for the ‘Boys is a critical divisional clash with the Eagles, where a win would put the Super Bowl champs to bed.